In southwestern Utah, unceasing growth means increased tension

Access to public lands has caused St. George to become one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country.

 

In 1861, Mormon Church leaders dispatched 309 families from Salt Lake City to the arid southwestern corner of Utah, telling them to grow cotton. The plan to settle this inhospitable desert region was part of a larger church-led effort to colonize the southern part of the state. The water-intensive crop never took off, but the community of St. George did, and today it is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. In the past two years, St. George has added nearly 12,000 new residents to a population of approximately 153,000 people, many of them drawn by the city’s mild climate and access to public lands. But all this growth has stoked some rising tension over water and land in this former farm town.

New homes under construction in St. George, Utah, an area experiencing one of the fastest rates of growth in the country.
George Frey/Getty Images

And many of the resulting problems will land right in the lap of Adam Lenhard, the new city manager, who started his job in February. On a warm summer day not long ago, he gazed over a seemingly endless expanse of newly shingled rooftops. “In some ways, St. George is just being discovered,” he told me. “A lot of us have been coming here for decades, and now it really feels like there is this spotlight and people are really just moving in.”

We were overlooking the community of Little Valley, where, as in many of St. George’s neighborhoods, rapid development is one of the challenges facing Lenhard. Alfalfa fields have been dug up for baseball diamonds and pickle-ball courts, and former ranchland is now covered by new tract homes.

One of these homes, Lenhard said, was being built for his family, which will be moving soon from Layton, Utah. Lenhard said he’d thought about relocating to St. George ever since he spent several vacations exploring nearby Zion National Park — one of Utah’s “Mighty Five” — and the red rock formations of Snow Canyon State Park, just 23 miles from the city center. Such places are a big draw here, in a county that is 75 percent public land, and, as a newcomer himself, Lenhard is deeply sympathetic to the motivations of many of his constituents. “Growth is a two-edged sword,” he said. “It brings jobs, quality of life, better amenities. But we have to preserve what has brought people. … We have to find the right balance as we grow.”

Source: University of Utah Policy Institute. Compiled with data from U.S. Census Bureau, Utah Population Estimates Committee and Utah Population Committee.

While amenity-driven growth in the West is most often associated with ski towns like Telluride, Colorado, or Jackson Hole, Wyoming, places like St. George have discovered that access to public lands — from slickrock deserts to mountainous wilderness to national parks and monuments — has become a migration magnet. This trend is playing out in communities across the region, according to John Shepard, director of programs for the Sonoran Institute. In the Old West, people’s migratory patterns were driven by jobs created by mining, timber and other resource-based economies, but today, people are moving because of the region’s “natural amenities, great outdoors, open space and wild lands,” he said. It’s no surprise that Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Oregon and Nevada are all seeing a spike in the number of new residents.

While retirees still make up a large percentage of new arrivals, St. George’s diversified economy is also attracting a new workforce, with employment in construction, hospitality, health care and manufacturing seeing the biggest upticks, according to a report compiled by the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “We’ve got growth pervasively across all age groups, mostly fed through migration,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. The city is also preparing to become the state’s next high-tech hub, with the creation of Tech Ridge, a mixed-use development designed to attract companies from across the country.

County-to-county migration-flow data from 2015 show that nearly 30 percent of new residents come from Utah’s crowded Wasatch Front, according to a report from the institute. The highest numbers of out-of-state residents are coming from California and Nevada, largely because they can take advantage of St. George’s lower cost of living. “The dynamic of being able to cash in your equity in California and move into other places … St. George has definitely been a beneficiary of that type of migration,” Perlich said. If this keeps up, the county is expected to house more than half a million people by 2065. That’s a lot of people struggling over limited resources of water and land — to say nothing of the preservation of the area’s agricultural heritage. Not surprisingly, this has added to the tension.

ON A LATE AFTERNOON IN JUNE, parents watched as their children splashed in a moat-like water feature in St. George’s Town Square Park, wading through channels and jumping between jets of water. Amid the watery revelry, one could almost forget that St. George is located in one of the driest states of the country; Washington County has an annual rainfall of just 16 inches per year. A majority of the county’s water comes from the Virgin River. Now, with droves of new residents moving in, long-term residents are worried that this precious and vulnerable resource could be drained, leading to water shortages.

That’s why in 2006, the Washington County Water Conservancy District announced plans to pursue a controversial pipeline connecting Lake Powell to southwest Utah. The nearly $1.5 billion project would divert 86,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell over 140 miles of desert into the county. The pipeline, which has yet to be approved, would provide security for the community’s future, said Ron Thompson, the district’s general manager. Supporters say the county needs to diversify its water sources. “Right now, our growing population is dependent on this one water source, which is really variable,” said Karry Rathje, the district’s public information manager.

Opponents of the project point out that even as the city’s population has grown, water use has actually gone down. According to figures released in June, the county decreased its consumption of potable water by over 1 billion gallons between 2010 and 2015, thanks to conservation measures and the conversion of irrigated agricultural land into housing developments. Groups like Conserve Southwest Utah, a local nonprofit, say even more can be done. That includes raising the county’s water rates, which remain some of the lowest in the United States.

Farm Security Administration members pose on a cooperative pipeline used for irrigation in St. George in 1940.
library of congress

All this growth is having a serious impact on land use. The region’s post-settlement character is rooted in an agricultural tradition, but agrarian outposts like Little Valley are rapidly being erased. In response, local resident Nicole Hancock, who grew up in what she calls her “beloved fields,” started the Washington County Agricultural Development Committee. The county committee, which will be composed of 18 to 20 members, was approved for funding in May, with its mission to preserve farmland and promote agriculture education.

Eventually, it might help people like Sherrie Staheli, a fourth-generation farmer from Washington Fields who has seen her farm, once 1,500 acres, encroached on by subdivisions and retirement communities. “Never in a million years would I think we’d have houses this close to us,” said Staheli. Yet the pressure to sell the land has been unrelenting; Staheli’s own family sold some parcels for profit and others because more and more road easements through the property were being approved. “People built out here because of the beauty of these fields,” Staheli said, “but they don’t like what comes with it.”

EVEN MORE DEVELOPMENTS are being planned in other parts of the county. One of them, called Desert Color, will eventually house an estimated 30,000 residents on state trust lands. The plans include a lot of “smart-growth principles,” such as xeriscaping and walkable amenities to reduce driving needs, said Jane Whalen, a resident of nearby Hurricane and a community organizer.

In 2006, Whalen and other residents worked with officials to create a set of principals to guide the region’s growth. Other master-planned communities being built by the new St. George Airport, south of the city, will eventually run up to the Arizona state border, site of some of the last developable land within city limits. Such developments mean less open space for wildlife migration corridors and fragmented habitat for mule deer, quail and pheasants.

Even where it isn’t directly overtaking habitat, St. George’s sprawl puts pressure on wildlife. The 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, for example, was established in 1996 to protect the Mojave Desert tortoise, a federally listed threatened species. The reserve is governed by a county conservation plan, part of a compromise that unlocked over 300,000 acres of protected habitat for the development of housing, freeways and shopping centers.

In another sign of the times, state lawmakers are now reviewing that agreement. A new bill, the so-called “Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act,” was introduced by Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in April. If passed, that “conservation” bill could transform the tortoise’s habitat — a stark landscape of lava flows, cinder cones and desert brush — into a five-lane highway. No one doubts that if it’s built, more traffic will come.

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow at NewTowncarShare News.

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